Museum Hours

Jem Cohen, Director of Museum Hours, by Klaus Vynnalek.

Try as my cinephile friends might, movies are not my thing. Heart-rending shorts on Vimeo about elderly painters and watching mainstays from my childhood (like Bullitt) for the 1,000,000th time, sure, but I seem never to stomach full-fledged films as they’re released. That said, some are too intimately relevant to ignore and one such film is Museum Hours by Jem Cohen.

Cohen has penned and filmed an ode to we, the ones who feel too much. The minimalist plot revolves around Anne, a woman in Vienna to sit beside the bedside of her ill cousin. She frequents the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she connects with museum-employed Johann. Both actors are not actors, per se; in their otherwise lives Mary Margaret O’Hara is a Canadian musician and Bobby Sommer a driver.

This film promises to collate many Nostos Algos tropes with more visual acuity than capable here. As with most of my interests, there is music. Cohen’s other work includes a film about Fugazi, a punk band from Washington D.C., and in the trailer you’re about to watch Johann footnotes a prior life of music. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle which ran today, Jem notes his care to keep the film experiential, ensuring the audience as neighborly voyeurs, and perfectly encapsulates the human condition with the following quote: “On a subconscious level, when people are dealing with difficulty and mortality, I think that there’s an instinctive understanding that that’s when art kicks in.” Likewise, this is the moment music finds its force.

Cohen goes onto entreat museums to “respect the magic of the space” they provide for visitors–magic that is redolent in institutions with residential overtones such as the Kunsthistorisches, or the Frick in New York. To feel as though you’ve been asked to make yourself comfortable in the grand parlor of someone’s palatial home for the purpose of understanding art is so much more fulfilling than being consumed by the white-washed negative space of so many modernist museums. This is not to say one is better than the other: they both serve different purposes. However, someplace like the Kunsthistorisches provides the perfect tonic to a weathered heart, and is a superb setting in which to explore the entropy that is our time on earth: the inevitability of loss and acquisition, and the in-between where they war.


Behind The Mask

From a Project Gutenberg reprinting of “A Flock of Girls and Boys” by Nora Perry, 1895.

Here, faithful readers, is a poem taken from a newspaper column in the women’s section of an 1890s San Francisco Chronicle title “Behind The Mask” by Nora Perry–an American poet and journalist who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. It is for the lonely ones who know not what they do.

“‘She speaks and smiles the gay old way

She is the same as yesterday,’

You turn and say.


The same as yesterday, before

The dark-winged angel at her door

Entered and bore


The treasure of her life away;

‘The same, the same as yesterday.’

And as you say


These questioning words with questioning tone,

Apart from you and quite alone

She makes her moan;


She does not dare to trust her woe

To break its bonds, her tears to flow

In outward show,


Lest, like a giant in her life,

This woe should rise to stronger life

And fiercer strife.


So, wearing on her face the guise

Of olden smiles, with tearless eyes

She dumbly tries


To lift her burden to the light,

To live by faith and not by sight,

And from the night


Of new despair and wasting grief

At last, at last to find relief

Beyond belief.


Even as she stands before you there

With all the old accustomed air,

The smiles that wear


The mirthful mask of yesterday.

She stands alone and far away

From yesterday.


She stands alone and quite apart,

With mirth and song her aching heart

Has lot nor part.


The while your criticize her air

Of gay repose, pierced with despair

She does not dare


To speak aloud her bitterness,

To tell you of her loneliness

And sore distress.”